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At-A-Glance

Composed: 1914-1917

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 14, 1925, Sir Henry Wood conducting

About this Piece

Holst began composing The Planets in 1914, yet, in spite of the first section’s title, “Mars, the Bringer of War,” it is not a war piece, for Holst was into it before World War I started. The composer, a man of intellect and wide-ranging interests, found musical inspiration in diverse places. “As a rule,” he said, “I only study things that suggest music to me. That’s why I worried at Sanskrit.” (When he became interested in Hindu literature through translations, he proceeded to learn the original Sanskrit and wrote several Hindu-inspired works, including two operas.) “And then,” he concluded, “recently the character of each planet suggested lots to me.”

In his preface to The Planets, Holst advised that there is no program in the pieces and that the subtitles should be sufficient to guide the imagination of the listener. Holst’s own imagination had been stimulated by many things, not the least of which was the great literature of English folk songs, introduced to him by his life-long friend, Ralph Vaughan Williams. Another influence was that of Stravinsky, whose music had greatly impressed Holst before he took on the universe, the effects of which in The Planets can be seen in the very large Firebird and Petrushka kind of orchestration, in insistent rhythms, and also in striding rhythmic shifts. Holst’s musico-spatial explorations may not be cosmic, but they are brilliant, dramatic, and picturesque enough to fit into almost anyone’s concert hall horoscope.

“Venus, the Bringer of Peace” is a tranquil scene cooled by flutes and an austere solo violin. A suggestion of sensuality evolves as the music gathers strength, but it is tempered by serene dissipation.

— Orrin Howard